He is a formidable rider - he gets formidable wins, then formidable defeats.
it's the all important second album that's the problem. there are many too many who have become the victims of the public's fickleness; we want success upon success, every step an advance on those already taken, judged not by the perpetrator but adoring followers. except, more often than not, that isn't the way things work out, because progression or not progression is entirely subjective. and quite frequently, progression is the last feature that is required. i need only cite status quo as evidence for the prosecution. that old schoolboy joke about them having learned a fourth chord is still reiterated to this day.
there are, no doubt, parallels in other walks of life, but it is the artistic amongst us that suffer the most. witness the recently completed track events in the london olympics. prior to this century, a silver medal would have been looked upon as a major success, yet we collectively breathed a sigh of dismay when poor queen victoria lost sight of the gold through no real fault of her own. our expectations, however, were all coloured gold, and had team gb failed to acquire a similar number as in beijing, we would not be currently basking in a warm, comfortable glow.
admit it, though you may not have voiced it in public, you expect bradley's sideburns to win the 2013 tour de france and perhaps a few more after that?
such were the pressures inflicted upon the great federico martin bahamontes, a spaniard who possessed the same panache and prowess held more recently by scotland's robert millar, yet one whose career is placed in what could legitimately be seen as an unfair perspective. for bahamontes, the eagle of toledo, like many a pure climber tended towards the eccentric, individualism and frequent sparks of brilliance. but the latter grew to be something that his fans came to expect more frequently than was often the result. strangely, those results seem not to have bothered federico quite as much as those guilty of adulation and those responsible for team selection.
it is a fact of cycling life in the early part of last century, that penury invaded most would-be riders' formative years. the relative financial security and material comforts that many of us take for granted nowadays was a stranger to most. how often have we read that a future tour or giro star learned to ride not on a new bike received for christmas, but astride the top tube of a father's or uncle's bicycle? for many, it was not a career choice picked from a list of alternatives, but a way out of a struggle for existence.
bahamontes was born on july 9th 1928 in val de santo domingo, a province of toledo, spain, the son of a road mender responsible for the stretch of road adjacent to the rent-free house that came with the job. in 1936, a job came up for a foreman on the duke of montoya's estate, increasing his wage to 3.5 pesetas per month. federico attended a charity school in toledo. 'It was as boring as hell'.
unfortunately, on 21 july 1936 the spanish army declared war upon the very republic it was sworn to protect. general franco claimed that 'spain's constitution had all but disintegrated and anarchists were stalking the country.' this resulted in the three year spanish civil war and effectively ended the bahamontes family's life on an estate that was now under threat from the socialists and anarchists. by 1939, when the war ended, federico was ensconced in villarubia de santiago, having been sent to live with relatives to avoid the destruction meted out by increasing air-raids during the hostilities.
bahamontes seems to have become a wheeler-dealer at an early age, and his first bicycle was purchased for the princely sum of 150 pesetas, a means of transport employed to pick up 'illegal loads of bread, beans and flour' from a series of villages before selling them on in toledo. it was a similar method of self-employment as admitted to by bernardo ruiz, winner of the 1948 vuelta espana. as bahamontes is quoted as saying 'it's all part of the legend'. his parents were less than enamoured with his purchase, but on realising it had been bought for nefarious ways of making money, they gave their approval. the original bicycle gave way to a racing bike with drop handlebars to aid a speedy getaway should he be seen by the civil guard. they were intent on clamping down on rural crime and watched the roads keenly.
bahamontes made the transition from black marketeer to that of bicycle racer on 18th july 1947, anniversary of the start of the civil war. two friends invited him to join in a bicycle race in the village of minasalbas. racing in a borrowed baseball shirt and his usual trousers, bahamontes finished in second place over a distance of 45 kilometres. the rest, as they say, is history.
alasdair fotheringham's the eagle of toledo is a marvellous testament to one of the sport's greatest characters, a rider possessed of the skills we'd attribute to the pure mountain climber, the ability to alter tempo when needed on the ascents and to jump off into the distance with the expectation of leading until the finish line. as the castillians would have it 'the eternal tilter at windmills'. undoubtedly fotheringham has had the advantage of being able to speak to bahamontes in person, though bearing in mind his apparent eccentricities, i doubt this was as easy as it perhaps ought to have been. it is not with just a little amount of satisfaction that federico bahamontes is still around and about, able to read the very words that have been written about his career.
that bahamontes won only one tour de france should not, i feel, be used in judgment of his racing career. for in the manner of the referred to second album, fotheringham's narrative would lead one to believe that bahamontes rode his own race, one that existed independently of any expectations that might have been foisted upon him by his fans. as l'equipe asserted, his style of racing bordered on the artistic; the bohemian.
'it is almost an anti-sporting way of racing a sport. climbing up mountains at the head of the pack just because they are there, not because of what you can gain, underlines the fact that sport is ultimately an exercise in futility, albeit a fascinating one.'
this single-mindedness seems not to have endeared him to the rest of the peloton, but it seems most unlikely that such a state of affairs ever lost bahamontes any sleep. the eagle of toledo is an intriguing insight into the life, the mind and the career of one of the true greats, not just of cycling but of life in general, someone who may have benefited from a tad more direction in his life (as he did under the managership of coppi in the late fifties), but in truth, played the game by his own rules. alasdair fotheringham's 281 pages are filled with well-researched, well-written and equitably paced chapters that will subtly educate those of us who knew little of bahamontes beyond his reputation and nickname.
'there were riders before him who were important, but bahamontes was the tour pioneer. he was an impulsive, very fiery rider - and that's still the case now.'
wednesday 7th august 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................